“History has failed us, but no matter.”

Pachinko is about Koreans living in Japan, a group of immigrants about whom not a lot has been written in fiction.

The book starts in a little fishing village in Korea. Hoonie, a man with a cleft palate and club foot, and his wife Yangchin run a boarding house in Yeongdo. They have a daughter, Sunja, whom they love. Then Hoonie get tuberculosis and dies. Sunja is seduced by Hansu, a businessman, and becomes pregnant. She thinks he will marry her, but when he admits he has a wife in Osaka in Japan and offers to keep her as a mistress, she refuses to have anything more to do with him. Instead she agrees to marry Isak, a Christian priest and boarder whom she and her mother have nursed through tuberculosis.

Isak and Sunja move to Osaka to live with his brother Yoseb and his wife Kyunghee, and the two women become very close. Sunja is shocked at the way Koreans live in Japan—treated as second-class citizens, their houses are ramshackle and their neighbourhoods poor. The outsider status is made worse for the family because Josep and Isak are Christians, a minority religion.  

Sunja gives birth to Noa, whom the family raise as their own. She later has a second son by Isak, Mozasu. Then their world falls apart as Isak is arrested for reciting the Lord’s Prayer and released only when he is close to death.

It is a time of war in both countries: Korea’s civil war has split the country into two, and Japan has entered the Second World War. In the meantime, Hansu has been keeping an eye on Sanju and Noa, but only makes contact with Sanju after Isak’s death. He arranges for a safe place for the family in the countryside and brings Yangchin to her daughter. Yoseb finds work in Nagasaki.

The story follows the family through their ups and downs. This is a story of endurance—mostly on the part of the women, especially Sunja, who somehow copes with all the hardship that life throws at her. Lee writes with heart—you invest in these people and feel for them.

And the facts are shocking. Koreans are not recognized as citizens in Japan. They are only granted three-year residency permits, which have to be renewed, no matter how long they had lived in the country or even if they were born there. Obtaining a passport is almost impossible. Not welcome in most regular occupations, the one way of making money was for them to run pachinko parlours, which are gaming arcades (pachinko are slot machines).

Mozasu drops out of school and starts working for pachinko parlours and eventually makes his fortune running them. The more intellectual Noa, on the other hand, pretends to be Japanese and is terrified that he would lose his job if the truth came out. He faces the dilemma of many immigrants who want to take on the identity of their adopted homeland but have their roots elsewhere: in the end, they are neither wholly one or the other. The treatment of Koreans as second-class citizens in Japan doesn’t really change much over time: Mozasu’s son Solomon faces it in the 1980s, although it is so normal for him that it takes his American-born girlfriend to see it.

Min Jin Lee does the story of Korean immigrants justice, painting a vivid picture of their lives and of their losses and triumphs. At a time when migration has become a global issue, and they are often seen as “the other”, we need books like this that depict immigrants as people not that different from anyone else.